The heroine of my first novel was named Galia. Russian, in her seventies, Galia loved food. And I loved her for loving food. Without thinking about the mechanics of it, I wrote her moods and needs in terms of food, drink and flavour. She sploshed spoonfuls of jam into her tea when she needed to be brave and kneaded mountains of snowy dough for dumplings when she wanted to think. She also spent many an hour on her vegetable patch or dacha, not just to grow food to eat, but because it was the right thing to do; it was her duty — something elderly ex-Soviet citizens still believed when I lived in Russia in the 1990s. Every morsel of food grown on a dacha garden could be a bargaining tool, and every shared meal was a dialogue, even if eaten in silence. From considering conundrums while sucking a boiled sweet, to comforting herself and others with home-made pickles, food was Galia’s oracle, companion and muse.
The central protagonist of my current novel is also defined by his food experiences, but his circumstances are very different. As he’s living in a campervan on the east Kent coast, his meals are less voluptuous, more necessary: a three-day-old sausage roll that gives him diarrhoea, flaccid biscuits, black coffee with six sugars, neat vodka (room-temperature) and the crust off the bread slowly rolled into pellets and chewed while observing the empty mud of the bay. Life for him is hungry, and food comfortless. Things change as the story develops, of course. His world bursts into technicolour, and incidentally he falls in love, when he’s given a bag of food shopping as a thank you from a friend. As he staggers uncertainly towards a new life, I have him undergo a five-course meal at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne. Here the setting, cutlery and dishes become ammunition, the richness of the food attacks him from the inside and the rabbit rillettes nearly do for him. The closing scene involves a champagne picnic at the top of Beachy Head, but that’s all I’m saying.
Food and its digestion, I am coming to realise, is a writerly obsession of mine. Maybe the roots of it lie in my sixth-form years. I studied the play Luther by John Osborne and, as far as I recall, Luther’s problems with his bowels reflected his moral and religious dilemma — almost constantly, and at great length. Osborne took his character, dilemma, narrative and diet and wrapped them together. Generally, we writers do a lot of ‘you are what you eat’, or indeed, how you eat; baddies eat cruel things, stupid people eat bland things, clever people eat special things, and some sticklers are too cerebral to bother with food and prefer other forms of sustenance entirely. I recently read Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, and in it there is a passage where a (possibly dodgy) doctor eats a grilled octopus. The description is so stomach-churning it made me suspect the doctor had tentacles of his own. This food-character connection is odd though, as it’s a long time since we believed we take on the character of what we eat — or is it?
Perhaps, as a society, food has taken on more meaning for us. If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (do you see how my RLF students have taught me? A year ago those words would not have left my lips) we see food is right there on the big bottom step of the pyramid, underpinning everything else, before love, property and all that self-esteem and self-fulfilment stuff. Food is a basic necessity. So why do we give it such power over us? Why do we judge people by what they eat, and why haven’t we developed those food substitute pills that the 1950s us thought we’d all be eating by now, while flying around in our jet buggies and popping over to Mars for our hols?
I guess it’s because we enjoy food too much, it pushes our buttons on so many levels, it is too complex to turn into a pill, and just right for elevating to a higher status. For some of us, eating and food no longer meet a ‘basic need’ but provide a way to belong to the right group, or even increase our status and self-esteem. Some of us in the UK currently have a total abundance of food. We can choose what not to eat and indulge a new diet regime at will. The seasons no longer dictate to us, because we no longer grow or produce much of what we eat ourselves. We can make it mean what we like.
As modern writers, we feed our characters food that imparts characteristics that modern readers will understand. The nuances of our assumptions change with the decades and food fads. Do our characters order steak because they like it best, or because they can afford it? Is it to tell the reader something about how macho they are, or how good their teeth are? In ten years’ time will they be judged as irresponsible for not doing their bit to reduce methane emissions by not eating cows? Is someone who eats steak in 2021 already a bit passé?
As writers, we know how to conjure assumptions about our characters using food, and we see this all the time in our society. At times, these assumptions can slip into prejudice. Levels of food snobbery and food prejudice seem to be high, thanks partly to the magic of social media. Intolerance of other tastes is rampant. Perhaps you saw the film of a meat market selling skewered bats, snakes, dogs and rats that did the rounds on social media when Covid was new? It claimed to show the Wuhan market, thought to be the source of the infection, and was obviously intended to shock and disgust viewers with close-ups of food that was alien to us in the ‘west’. Later we found out it was not shot in China and had nothing to do with Covid. So, what’s my point here? I suppose that it’s fine to create a baddie who eats snakes, but we shouldn’t be saying he’s a baddie just because he eats snakes. We must be wary of peddling stereotypes when using food to help define our characters, by being true to our observations, avoiding laziness in our thinking, and writing as people watchers, rather than people judges.
So back to food and assumptions, minus the snakes. In the 1970s, my siblings and I weren’t allowed to watch ITV because my father disapproved of it — partly because of the adverts, partly because of the programming. The result of this was that 1) I was convinced ITV was fab and always wanted to watch it whenever my father was out of the house, and 2) I was convinced that branded foods advertised on ITV must be far better than the supermarket’s own (or indeed home-made). And now I am middle-aged, it still feels like a weird kind of treat to buy myself the forbidden Golden Nuggets, Angel Delight, Coca-Cola, even Heinz ketchup, though I have discovered that these things are not the taste sensation I thought. Maybe I am getting near the top of old Maslow’s pyramid by buying them; here I come, self-actualisation — achieving my potential with a bowl of butterscotch chemical whip.
This brings me to another reason I go on about food as a writer; let me take you for a ride in my taste time-machine. I can use a hundred words to tell you what a sausage roll looks like, but as a writer I don’t feel I’ve done my job unless you can taste that sausage roll and are momentarily transported back to the last year of high school (or wherever else it is I want to take you) to join my character in that moment. Food memories and connotations are vital elements of building both a character and the reader’s relationship with that character. If you don’t know a character’s favourite meal and can’t taste it with them, I’d say you don’t know them. Think of your significant others, or even folks at work; you know what they eat for lunch, or what their treat of choice is. Sometimes it’s surprising, because you’ve made assumptions about what they eat based on how they look or where they’re from. Whether you’re a sourdough mumma, a KFC prince or the type that likes fava beans and a nice chianti, our appreciation and relationship with food makes us human, with all our failings.
Now, pass the rabbit rillettes, would you?